I am just 30 minutes out of my Tuesday/Thursday developmental psychology class and I am starting to think that I might have found that perfect project for this course.  Before I explain why I am actually a bit giddy today, let me give just a bit of background.

First, I teach developmental psychology quite often.  Usually a few times per academic year.  Though it is my most taught class (and probably best prepped in terms of actually having coherent lecture material and activities) it is a class that I have personally struggled with.  The reason for my struggle is partially the course content and partially my own need to keep things fresh as to not become bored with the material myself.

I have tried several ways to re-create the course.  First, I moved from a chronological to a topical approach so that I wasn’t always talking about one age period but rather all of the age periods throughout the semester.  Second, I tried to include more hands-on activities (an hour 40 is a LONG time in class!) that I thought would be engaging and question provoking for the students.  Then I played around with the course project, making it first an autobiography and then splitting up the autobiography into 5 parts.

I still found myself not totally satisfied with the class.  The content seemed too easy (at least for me) and the course simply not offering the appropriate amount of rigor that a 200-level course should, the students did not seem to be as engaged as I would like, and I just haven’t felt quite ‘right’ about the class.  I cannot describe it better than that, and if you, reader, have ever been a teacher I think you know what it is I am trying to convey.

I’ve toyed with the idea of incorporating a service learning element into my class, but this never came to fruition, mostly because I did not have the resources or the time to find good community locations for a small scale service learning project.  I know it can be done, I just have not done this.  But just recently and honestly just the week before classes begun, I had another idea for a course project.  Have the students develop a public website.

This idea came about for a few reasons: 1) I wanted to try to reduce the amount of writing grading in this course.  In the past I have had massive amounts of writing to grade.  This is not to say I do not value writing, I just needed to bring the amount down a bit (Thirty-two 15 page papers is a lot!). 2) I wanted to have students write for a different kind of audience.  I have thought more and more about ‘authentic tasks’ and in all of my other courses students write a typical college paper or psychology APA paper – not very authentic, unless they are going to be an academic.  I wanted to practice a different form of writing and a form that they are more likely to use in the future. 3) I wanted to encourage my students learn some things on their own.  There are so many topics that I cannot cover in this course simply because it is too large.  I wanted students to choose some topics that they could dive into deeper on their own.

So here is the project, for each new unit (there are five in the course), seven groups of 3-4 students work together on some selected topic in developmental psychology and create a web page to describe and teach that topic.  The caveat is, they need a narrow topic so they can do one thing really well and that the web page must look professional, be organized, be informative, and be creative.  My students just developed their assigned topics a couple of days ago and I (hope) I am feeling the effects that this project now has on the course in general.  Let me explain.

Today is usually a day that is mostly me lecturing with a couple of activities that the students do not really get too engaged in: Theory.  Often it is a yawner of a class as we cover quite a bit (Freud, Skinner, Bandura, Brofenbrenner).  Today I had a different experience.  Today the students were REALLY engaged and ASKED A BUNCH OF QUESTIONS!  I was surprised at first!  Usually there might be one or two question, but I had at least 6 different students ask questions through the lecture.

Now this is simply anecdotal and it may just be today, but if a THEORY lecture can engage students….what will the more interesting topics bring?  Many of the questions were about Freud’s Psychosexual Theory and as I looked back, most of the students asking the questions had chosen that as their group’s topic.  I am hopeful that this is indicative of students having more ‘buy-in’ to some of the content.  They know what their topic will be and will want to know more when we actually come to that topic.  I am also hopeful that for later lectures during each unit, group members will offer information that they have found for the class.

These are extremely preliminary observations…it has only been one class…but I remain optimistic.  I had a GREAT time during this lecture, more enjoyment than usual and I know it is because I saw the students being interested and engaged in this topic.  I will continue to see if this pattern continues…who knows, perhaps there is a study in here somewhere for the future.  For now, I am at least partially reinforced for my choice of course project.  We will see how everything comes together, but for now it is a good start.

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